Friday, June 03, 2011

Film criticism today

Having recently bought the Criterion Collection edition of DePalma's masterpiece (for it is nothing less) Blow Out, it was with great joy that I realized that the enclosed booklet included Pauline Kael's original New Yorker review of the film. It's nothing less than mind-blowing to read criticism of this level after being regularly subjected to what passes for film criticism today, especially what we see on the internet. A major difference that one immediately notices is that critics in those days wrote primarily for people who had already seen the film. It was an attempt to engage the audience on an intellectual and aesthetic level, to enter into a kind of cultural discourse about what is beautiful and important about film.
I don't think we really have a clear idea of what film criticism is supposed to accomplish in today's culture, primarily because we seem to have little or no cultural dialogue about the importance of art. Yet clearly most people seem to consider film criticism as a) nothing but another opinion, no more (or less) important than the opinion of you, me or Joe SixPack and b) as a way to get recommendations about what to see. The two functions are, obviously, somewhat contradictory.The latter function is perhaps due to the astounding amount of new films coming out. It nonetheless often reduces writing on film to a short summary of plot followed by a checklist of what worked about the film and what didn't (cinematography, check; directing, not so good; acting, good but forced; etc.).

What I'm interested to know is if there are any readers out there that can recommend film writing that transcends this kind of "liked it or didn't" mentality. Are there any writers of film out there that regularly engage films on a deeply aesthetic and philosophical level, revealing cultural, historical and spiritual connections, deepening our experience of film and opening up new horizons of dialogue and thought on the art of film? The only people who even remotely come to mind are Dargis and Scott at the New York Times. Roger Ebert is fun to read but even at his best he rarely comes close to the depth of analysis of people like Kael and Sarris. His "Great Movies" column contains his best writing by far, especially since therein he is not tethered to that most asinine aspect of modern criticism, the star rating system. The big names, Peter Travers, Armond White, Richard Corliss, David Edelstein, sometimes touch on excellent points and try to approach films from a fresh angle but more often than not their reviews don't really extend beyond recommendations to potential viewers.

Some people have claimed that there should be a clear distinction between film reviewers on the one hand, i.e. those who work for large publications whose job it is to recommend - or not recommend - films to potential viewers, and film critics on the other. The latter would be more academic, serious scholars who engage in actual film study. The problem with this distinction is that it threatens to completely academize film criticism, relegating it to esoteric language and intellectual mumbo-jumbo, walling it within the ivory tower (or worse, the university!). I can't see Pauline Kael as happily fitting within either group. This distinction also seems to fall into the old trap of elitism, presupposing that regular people are unwilling or unable to engage in serious discussion about philosophy or art. Most people are, given half the chance. It's simply a matter of creating the cultural outlets for such discussion. Perhaps if film studies (and the study of art in general) were more prominent in our public schools we could begin to address this problem more seriously.

In any case, the cultural devaluation of film as art is due to a variety of causes: a lack of intellectual discourse in our culture, the Hollywood business model (a monster compared to what it was in previous decades), the obsession with entertainment and comfort at the cost of serious art. A huge factor is also the failure of film critics to engage the public on a deep, intellectual level without alienating them, safeguarding that their profession doesn't regress into relativistic blather or empty recommendations. It is the role of the critic to keep discussion of art alive and well and to ensure the continued cultural importance of the art form he or she champions, to love it and cherish it and to engage it on a level that extends beyond what we usually see in our newspapers and on the internet.


James said...

Anthony Lane in the New Yorker can bepretty good, but they also have David Denby, so a net negative there. But you're right. Film reviewing is a mess. It's a shame. It where critics and public could connect on a more intelligent level.

Reido Bandito said...

Denby? Eww...